By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Vietnam War is a topic that conjures up many images in the minds of Americans. Images of brave young men fighting in dense jungle, helicopters landing under heavy fire, and anti-war protestors at home.
Above all, the War is generally associated with the decade of the 1960s. But the foundation for the events of Vietnam was laid far earlier, as the Heinz History Center’s latest special exhibition, “The Vietnam War: 1945-1975,” explores.
A collaboration with the New York Historical Society, “The Vietnam War” looks at the long historical arc that laid the framework for the War, beginning immediately post-World War II, as well as the aftermath of the War in the early 1970s.
“We want people to walk away recognizing that the Vietnam War is more complex than we commonly understand,” says Samuel Black, lead curator for the exhibition. “That’s why the exhibit is focused from 1945 to 1975.”
Since opening on April 13, the exhibit has been positively received by veterans and civilians alike.
The exhibition has seen major alterations since its debut in New York, with the Heinz History Center adding the stories of Western Pennsylvania veterans, as well as several new artifacts, including an authentic UH-1H “Huey” helicopter.
The exhibition begins immediately after the Second World War, exploring the political framework that was laid in the two decades preceding the beginning of the Vietnam War.
“Most visitors, when they think of the Vietnam War, think of the ‘60s, but it started in the ’40s,” says Michael Dubios, design director for the exhibition. “It goes all the way back to [the start of] the Cold War.”
The opening galleries detail the French influence and control of the region at that time, which contributed majorly to the instability in the region that would result in civil war. It also discusses the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, who would begin U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
This investment in the affairs of other nations sparked conflict domestically, conflicts that grew more heated as military involvement in Vietnam escalated. As a result, one of the major focuses of the exhibition is on the “war at home” regarding American interference in foreign affairs, at the expense of soldier’s lives.
“It expands the understanding of the anti-war movement as well as the understanding of people who served there,” Black says.
One of the most impactful representations of this rebellion is a 14 foot banner protesting the war in the lead up to the 1968 presidential election, displayed during a sporting event at Three Rivers Stadium. The exhibition also tells the stories of protestors, some of whom found themselves caught in the midst of the conflict.
“There were people in jail for protesting that realized they were drafted while in jail. They took them out of jail and sent them to Vietnam,” Dubois says.
This naturally leads to discussion of the actual combat experienced by soldiers in Vietnam. This is best encapsulated by the exhibition’s largest gallery, a circular room dedicated to the Tet Offensive, a pivotal moment in the war, both for the combatants and those at home.
“While it was a victory militarily for the U.S. forces, it was a defeat politically,” says Dubois. “That’s when [Walter] Cronkite say he’s not sure that we’re winning.”
The Tet Offensive gallery features two of the largest artifacts in the exhibition, a combat Jeep and a UH-1H “Huey” helicopter. The “Huey” was delivered to the museum in parts, and reconstructed by local Vietnam veterans.
“They came in and built it, and they built it like it was yesterday. That was powerful to see,” Dubois says.
While some of the exhibition is focused on the combat in Southeast Asia, there is a considerable amount of content regarding the humanity of the troops, particularly their creative expression. Many of the troops used their cots as a canvas for messages while sailing to Vietnam.
“Because some of those troops had no idea if they would return alive or not, they wrote messages on the cots,” Black says.
This same phenomenon can be found in the bunks that accommodated the soldiers after landing in Asia, also on display. Most fascinating is a large collection of Zippo lighters, each featuring personalized etchings done by the soldiers themselves.
Added to the original New York exhibition are a variety of artifacts from Western Pennsylvania veterans. Pennsylvania was home to the fifth most Vietnam War personnel of any state, with Western Pennsylvania providing a large share of those personnel.
“Some of the local veterans were really gracious and generous with either donating or loaning to us their personal mementos from their service in Vietnam, both men and women,” Black says.
Included in these artifacts are uniforms, medals, and the diary of George Kniss, a war photographer who toured Southeast Asia during a critical time in history
“His tour from August 1963 to August 1964 spanned the assassination of South Vietnamese President Diem, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Gulf of Tonkin incident that Johnson used to get approval from Congress to conduct the war as he saw fit, and the beginning of the increase of U.S. ground personnel in Vietnam,” Black says.
The culmination of the impact Western PA had on the war in Vietnam, however, is seen in the exhibition’s final gallery, a memorial featuring the names of the more than 700 Western Pennsylvanians who lost their lives. Modeled after the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., it is a sobering reminder of the human cost of war, and a reminder of the power and impact just one small piece of the country can have.